Sitting at a wall table in downtown's Majestic Café, guitarist Rob Smith coolly puffs his Camel, waiting for sound check. Decked in a dark blue tailored two-piece suit and sporting a bush of an Afro — he could've stepped straight out of Super Fly — the tall, svelte Smith tugs anxiously at his goatee and talks of the events leading up to this night.
The show was to be the debut of Smith's new project, Brooke Shields, as part of the Majestic's free Sunday night showcases, "One Night Band" — but he felt he needed to flesh out the bill with other local talent. He wanted to bring in Justin Walker, guitarist in the jerky, dance-inducing Electric Fire Babies (who also leads his own obscure shoegaze project Hi-Speed Dubbing), but conflicting schedules nixed that idea.
"We could have had all the brothers in one place," Smith chuckles, referring to the fact he, Justin and the drummer for Smith's main band, Darkred, are all black musicians. "I wanted to bring some names to the bill. I mean, people will look at 'Brooke Shields' and wonder, 'Who the fuck is that?'"
Indeed, many local music fans are more familiar with the southwest Detroit-based Darkred, Smith's main gig, a duo he fronts alongside drummer and local artist Chris Turner. (Turner's name is recognizable; for one thing, he was a major mastermind behind the Millennium Bell sculpture stationed in Grand Circus Park.)
Smith had phoned Turner about tonight's show an hour before the night was set to begin. Darkred wasn't actually scheduled to appear, but Smith needed to pad the bill and Turner lives close to the midtown Café.
"I can't tell you when Turner will get here," Smith says. "He's a bit of a wildcat." The entire gig is hence colored with an uneasy spontaneity.
The hulking and gravel-voiced Turner finally arrives at 11:30 p.m., minutes before Brooke Shields hits the stage. Smith and his Shields crew — including girlfriend and bassist Gina Rodriguez (also currently of the Detroit Cobras) and drummer Chris Morris — rip a set of slow, churning, classic shoegaze. Smith croons, and a white-noisy din rises from his black Fender Jaguar. The five-song set absolutely slays the small but enthusiastic Sunday night crowd. Among the friends who Smith and Turner have in attendance from other local Detroit bands are the Detroit Cobras' Mary Ramirez and Cannon's Kenny Tudrick, both of whom frequently hoist a beer in approval of the sounds coming from the stage.
Following a short break and another round of Millers and whiskey, Smith and Turner take the stage as Darkred. They're loose, and laugh as they begin.
But from Turner's first cymbal crash, Darkred's a completely different beast from the relatively laid-back Brooke Shields. The white-noise loops remain, but the sound shoots rather than soars; it's choppy more than it is soothing. Smith's croon is now a bellow, as Turner basically obliterates his drums, creating a dense wash of candy-coated noise; lush soundscapes interrupted by torrents of oscillating guitar.
And Turner's surely a sight. The drums are pounded; it's as if they might fly from the stage at any moment. (This writer was surprised to learn after the set that he was holding back: "It wasn't my kit ... I was taking it easy.")
Smith has been creating this same sort of indie psychedelia since the early '90s. He manned guitar in the great, now-on-hiatus, Ohio-via-Detroit crew, Paik, along with bassist Ali Clegg and drummer Ryan Pritts. That band managed five albums before taking an indefinite breather.
"Only the last two albums are worth talking about," Smith says. But Paik's fourth release, 2004's Satin Black, touched on everything from Hawkwind-like space rock to avant-garde drone, sometimes suggesting experimentalists like Tony Conrad. When the band turned up the knobs, their amped-up rumble resembled the face-melting psych of Japan's underground rock scene of the last couple decades.
Smith, who's originally from Ohio, initially moved to Detroit in 1998 and settled in the Cass Corridor, alongside the other members of Paik. "People thought we were crazy when we first moved there," the guitarist says. "That's how you knew we weren't from here."
Darkred is two years old — but Turner and Smith have been pals for a decade. "Paik used to do a lot of festivals and Turner would come down to see us and we would just hang," Smith says. "He had his art warehouse and we just kicked it there."
Darkred continues the Paik-style experimentalism, albeit stripped-down. The dense soundscape and the ferocity at which it's played amazes, particularly considering it's only two people armed with a guitar sent through pedals and a drum kit.
The band's basic sound is difficult to describe, but it's different from anything you'll likely hear now. It's alternative, in the true sense. But instead of being an alternative to good, the duo nods its mojo at some of the greatest noise-rock innovators, including Sonic Youth, Jesus and the Jesus and Mary Chain and My Bloody Valentine.
"We don't want to be like every other band in town still sucking the MC5's dick," Smith says. Don't confuse his bluntness with disrespect; Smith's just, um, a bit confident. But it's not lazy boasting. He and Turner are consciously trying to make music that their audience won't regret shelling out five bucks to see. "We're not trying to cater to the [hipster] scene," Smith says. "That's more like a fucking high school social club at this point. Everybody's playing garage rock and everybody's cool. I mean, there's a lot of good rock in Detroit. A lot. But so much of it is just straight rock 'n' roll. The thing I see different in other city scenes from this one is diversity."
"Our music, I think, puts art first and entertainment later," Turner adds.
Smith agrees: "You know, I'm not a rock 'n' roll entertainer. I'm always an artist first."
A key component to Darkred's sound is its relative rhythmic simplicity. "The thing is, Turner is fairly new to drums," Smith says. "He only started playing them a short while before we started the band."
But he also took "lessons" from one of the best. "I started playing with Kenny Tudrick, one of the best drummers in town," Turner says, "getting toned and finessed."
The band's work is still in an embryonic state. But this spring, the band, following two years of relentless gigging, is finally ready to lay it down to tape. "The music we have right now, I think it's a quality product to offer globally," Smith says.
French Kicks singer-guitarist Nick Stumpf, a Darkred friend, requested to be a part of the duo's planned May record release. "The only thing left for us to worry about is to put out something physical," Smith says. "Nick dug us. He dug the whole package, so we'll bring him in to engineer some things for us."
Darkred is set to record the album with Steve Nawara at his Beehive Recording Co. "I think people will dig this kind of shit because it's not like what's already out there," the cocksure Smith says. "I think it could be the start of a new thing."
And he's not just talking about the novelty of being a black band in a predominantly white indie scene ... not that this matters to those who care about music. Even so, the band does seem to sometimes get gigs based on their race.
"Sometimes we get looked at as a novelty," Smith confides. "White bands will bring us in to play their shows. They're like: 'What can these brothers do?' Then we play and totally fuck them up by blowing their minds." He laughs. "We've landed a lot of good gigs by doing that."
But Smith and Turner are more humored than anything else by the perceptions of those other bands. "A lot of people talk about white noise — you know, like Sonic Youth and no wave," Smith concludes. "We use that too. But our approach is different." He stops to sip his Miller, smirks, and says, "Our music is black noise."
Wednesday, March 24, at PJ's Lager House, 1254 Michigan Ave., Detroit; 313-961-4668. With Lab Partners.Kent Alexander is a Metro Times music critic. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org